Sometimes the things we resist influence us the most. For me, this was certainly the case with the paintings of Mark Rothko.

As a young man I found myself alienated from many modernist works. I felt they were overly intellectual; you needed a degree to begin to approach them much less understand them. They didn’t meet the audience half way. Some of them even needed critical interpretation to be fully resolved.

Nonetheless, my intensely emotional reactions to Mark Rothko’s paintings were undeniable. Standing before these fields of color produced a physical sensation, much like listening to music. Rothko was able to communicate powerful emotions with the simplest means. Often his canvases were composed no more than two rectangles inside the larger rectangular field of the canvas or as few as three colors. Unlike DeKooning, gesture isn’t what communicates emotion – Rothko’s canvases are stained.  Rothko’s use of scale, quite different than Albers’, also impressed me; the large fields immerse you in the sensation of color, further intensifying it.

Rothko’s painting was more than an exploration of optics, it was also a spiritual quest. It’s not just color-for-color’s sake; it’s color placed in the service of the human spirit. Upon further study, I found that many early modernists shared a similar spiritual impulse and used abstraction in a quest for a universal language that reached beyond time and culture. For me this was the link between the modernists I appreciated and the ones that left me cold. It was a quest I resonated with. It started a chain reaction within my thinking about and appreciation of art. I continue to search for similar qualities in my own work.

Who are your influences and what do they mean to you?

Find out more about my influences here.

Ansel Adams impressed me as a boy. What impressed me was the total package: his images (He helped codify a movement and a genre.); his technical mastery (He refined and disseminated the zone system.); his educational efforts through books (They are still in print today.) and workshops (He set up his own program and invited others to teach with him.); his environmental advocacy both locally (It’s hard to think of Yosemite without thinking of Ansel Adams.) and nationally (He had a strong relationship with the Sierra Club and many other environmental organizations.); his strong networks of friends in wide-ranging fields (They included the painter Georgia O’Keefe and the activist David Brower.). What’s more, all of these elements worked in concert with one another creating a marvelous synergy where each enriched the other. At the end of his life, he wasn’t the wealthiest man alive, but he was rich beyond measure in so many other ways and he left us knowing he had made major contributions. Perhaps more than any other photographer he influenced both his medium and his culture and he did so by empowering others.

Ansel Adams life and work challenge me to think about how to make my own life’s work more impactful and far-reaching.

Who are your influences and what do they mean to you?

Find out more about my influences here.

Sometimes you find your own voice through observing your responses to other people’s work.

One of my visual journals is a collection of images that I appreciate. When you bring enough images together new patterns emerge. This was certainly the case for me when I sifted through my favorite photographs of nudes and found a thread that tied together works by Jerry Uelsmann, Emmet Gowin, Harry Callahan, and Ruth Bernhard. All four of the photographs I had selected used double exposure to merge the figure with the landscape. It wasn’t that these works were typical of each artist’s work; Jerry Uelsmann who would be best know for this kind of work offers many such images; Harry Callahan was highly experimental and offered only a handful of these kinds of treatments; Ruth Berhard produced fewer; Emmet Gown only produced even fewer. What had been revealed through the process of creating this collection was my own interest in a specific kind of imagery and a particular theme.

Overtly stated in my own photographs of nudes in varying degrees of transparency, the theme of man and nature as one runs through all of my work. Whether subtly or dramatically, directly or indirectly, I’m interested in all types of imagery that challenges conventional notions of separateness and offer a vision of unity.

What shared themes can you identify when observing your own influences?

Read more about my influences here.

Despite a challenged relationship with the church, I still find the content in the Bible and the good acts it inspires extremely inspiring. I had strong spiritual feelings as a very young child and they’re still with me today. Many works of art inspired me, none more than Matthais Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. It’s a complex masterpiece. Two panels in particular mean a great deal to me. The Resurrection epitomizes the word beatific – transcendently wise, compassionate and fulfilled. The Temptation of St Anthony is a riveting portrayal of a supreme test of that state and how it can survive and even be strengthened by confrontations with the darkest negativities.

I see images like Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece and I feel called to try and rise to some small measure of this greater state of being. Achieving this depth of perspective and strength of expression is a primary goal of my life/art. For me, making art is a call to learn and put that learning into practice.

Here’s a link to an good post on Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.

Learn more about the Isenheim Altarpiece on Wikipedia.

Learn more about Mathais Grunewald on Wikipedia.


During my recent South Africa Photo Safari (sponsored by NIK) in Mala Mala, South Africa, I spent several days photographing African wildlife. We saw all of the big five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, cape buffalo) and many other animals. It was the first time I made a concerted effort to make finished wildlife photographs. I gained an increased appreciation for how moments of peak action (or lack thereof) can make or break some photographs. I made many competent photographs, but only one that I felt began to have an inspired quality. I suspected I would have no intention of using these kinds of images professionally – and confirmed this. But, these images rekindled an old flame.

Making these images reminded me of the many hours I spent drawing animals. I quickly discovered that for what I wanted to depict, portraits weren’t enough, interaction and context were necessary. I was interested in how people, of many eras and cultures, react psychologically to animals and to the archetypal ideas of animals we share. One of my favorite essays is about an animal – the snake. Psychologist James Hillman’s A Snake Is Not A Symbol (from the book Dream Animals.) has an enormous amount to offer about how we respond to images of animals. He suggests we reanimate images, especially those we encounter in dreams, through an extended inner dialog with them.

Days later, after making these images, during which my guide repeatedly warned me about the potential for finding hidden snakes, I had a dream about a snake, which was very important to me personally. For me, it was one more in a long line of dreams about snakes. It’s fascinating to see how inner material resurfaces during the creative process and what we can do to stimulate and work with this process.

What images could you make to help you reconnect with and develop important material in your inner life?

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Frequently, old ideas and feelings surface in the midst of our creative process. Tracking our own fixations and chains of association can be both revealing and rewarding.

The paintings of Morris Graves made a big impression on me at an early age. Ever since, I been interested in photographs of dead animals, particularly birds. I even made some of my own.

I stumbled into this territory, once again, by chance, while photographing on the side of the road in Iceland. I quickly made this sketch with my iPhone. I knew what was happening while I was doing it, because I’d already done a lot of observation of my creative process and soul searching. I recommend you do the same for yourself. You’ll be richly rewarded with highly personal insights.

Find out about my 2012 Iceland digital photography workshop here.

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